The Link Between Parental Favoritism and Teenage Drug Use

Parental favoritism is linked to drug and alcohol use in teenagers (and if you’re using drugs and alcohol, you’re flirting with addiction). If your parents have a favorite child, the other kids are more likely to experiment with smoking, drinking, and using drugs.

parental favoritism drug addictionAre you the favorite child? You may have a whole ‘nother set of issues to contend with! In The Favorite Child, Ellen Weber Libby explores why parents, consciously or unconsciously, choose a favorite child. She describes the long-term effects of being the favorite son or daughter, and discusses family situations where parents have successfully made each of their children feel favored and have instilled in their children a healthy emotional balance.

If you were the favorite child and your sibling struggles with addiction, read 6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister. I don’t review drug rehabilitation centers or suggest alcohol treatment recovery plans, but the article might help you support your addicted sibling. Drug and alcohol use often starts in the teenage years, and may be connected to family dynamics.

In this article, I share research that links parental favoritism with drug and alcohol addiction. The research didn’t specify teenage drug and alcohol use; I’m making that assumption because kids under 12 seem less likely to use drugs and alcohol. And, adults over 18 seem less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol because of parental favoritism.

This is an interesting study by Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen.

Drug Use in Teens and Parental Favoritism

The bottom line of this study – besides the finding that alcohol and drug use is related to parental favoritism – is that the link between substance use and favoritism didn’t exist among families that take a strong interest in each other. Healthy, happy families aren’t as prone to fall into the addictions trap as unhappy families are.

The stronger and more connected you are as a family, the less likely parental favoritism will lead to unhappy stints in alcohol and drug rehab centers.

Parental favoritism has a greater effect in disengaged families. For families that aren’t very close to each other – so-called “disengaged” families – favoritism was strongly associated with alcohol, cigarette and drug use by the less-favored children. In these families, children who view themselves as slightly less favored were almost twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. If the preferential treatment was perceived to be dramatic, the less favored child was 3.5 times more likely to use any of these substances.

In other words, favoritism appears to be the most problematic when love and support are generally scarce.

One thing that wasn’t addressed in this research study was the other factors that contribute to drug and alcohol use (and stints in drug rehabilitation and alcohol treatment centers, which are traumatic for the whole family). It’s possible that parents who are disengaged are struggling with addiction issues themselves. This may lead kids to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and become addicted. So the link between parental favoritism (or not being the favorite child) and drug and alcohol use may not be clear cut. Exposure to drugs and alcohol has an effect on a kid’s choice to use and possibly become addicted.

Drug and alcohol use escalated in children who weren’t favored. Jensen said that with parental favoritism in disengaged families, it wasn’t just that the non-favored kids were more likely to use any substances. It was also that their existing smoking, drug, and alcohol use escalated if and when they perceived themselves not to be a favorite. Or if they were smoking and drinking, they were more likely to also use drugs.

Parental favoritism drug use

“The Link Between Parental Favoritism and Teenage Drug Use”

How do you know you’re the favorite child? My sister and I always agreed I was the favorite of both my mom and my grandma. I can’t remember exactly why we thought this, but there were signs of parental favoritism. My mom would link arms with me when we were walking, or my grandma would talk to me more.

Whether parental favoritism actually exists is less important than the perception.  When you ask people which sibling gets preferential treatment, their perception often doesn’t match reality. That is, kids may see favoritism while parents deny it…but reality doesn’t matter. Perceptions matter more.

“It’s not just how you treat them differently, but how your kids perceive it,” Jensen said. “Even in the case where the parents treated them differently, those actual differences weren’t linked to substance use – it was the perception.”

How to Avoid Parental Favoritism

Jensen offered a simple tip for avoiding parental favoritism: Show your love to all your children at a greater extent than you currently are. Parent your kids with more warmth and less conflict, and you reduce the chances of drug use and alcohol addiction. I think it’s also important to remember that no matter how you parent, your kids will make their own choices. You may not think parental favoritism is a factor, but your kids may see your behavior differently.

Another way to avoid the perception of playing favorites is to look for unique things that each of your children are trying to build into their identity. “Every kid as they get older develops their own interests and start to have their own identity,” Jensen said. “If you value that and respect that, and as a parent support what they see as their identity, that would help them feel loved.”

What are your thoughts on parental favoritism and teenage drug and alcohol use?

If your parents are the source of all sorts of madness, read How to Deal With Difficult Parents.

Source of the research on being the favorite child and addictions: Favoritism linked to drug use in ‘disengaged’ families, in the Journal of Family Psychology.

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